Tribune’s Contempt of Court

The Chicago Tribune didn’t just ignore a judge in Du Page County; the Tribune all but told the judge to stick his order up his robe. So now two Tribune reporters have been charged with contempt of court and another battle over the rights of a free press is taking shape.

These battles are always grave matters, of course, yet some can be less solemn than others around the edges.

Two months ago, three students were stabbed at York High School in Elmhurst, one of them receiving chest wounds that almost killed him. Police arrested a 14-year-old freshman described by the Tribune as “a lonely youth taunted for his punk dress and apparent interest in satanism.”

When kids get into trouble, their names are suppressed in juvenile court proceedings; often there are other ways to find out who they are, but generally the media allow a minor his anonymity. Out at York High, each paper made its own decision. The Sun-Times, for example, didn’t print the boy’s name. The Tribune did.

“The thinking was, we have a high school with roughly 2,000 kids,” explained John Schmeltzer, the Tribune’s Du Page County bureau chief. “Virtually every kid at the high school our reporters talked to knew who’d done the stabbing. They’d be going home and telling their parents . . . and everybody in town who had any association with the high school would know. The other factor was the severity of the crime. We had a kid in critical condition . . .”

Not that it was Schmeltzer’s call to make. He kicked it upstairs to Eugene Quinn, the suburban editor, who kicked it upstairs to Ellen Soteber, the metro editor, who kicked it upstairs to . . . at the Tribune, the stairs go up and up.

The boy’s name appeared in the next morning’s editions. Later that same day, the boy appeared in court before Associate Judge Robert Byrne. For the suspect, the judge ordered a psychiatric examination. For the media, silence.

“The name was printed in the Tribune, and to that extent the horse is already out of the barn,” Judge Byrne observed. Nevertheless, “no media present here in court today” could publish it again. The judge’s authority was a passage of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act that declares, “The Court may, for the minor’s protection, and for good cause shown, prohibit any person or agency present in court from further disclosing the minor’s identity.”

Tribune reporter Joe Sjostrom took down the judge’s remarks in court. Reporter Jan Crawford eventually wrote the next day’s story. But neither had anything to do with the decision about how to react to Judge Byrne’s instruction. That matter was decided at the very top, in consultation with the Tribune’s legal department.

Here are the two critical paragraphs from the subsequent article, which appeared under Crawford and Sjostrom’s bylines.

“You may not speak or print this child’s name. The act is designed for the protection of the minor,” [Byrne] said. “My order is plain. I don’t want anyone mentioning this child’s name.”

The suspect was identified as George Geider in Thursday’s editions of the Tribune.

“That was really hanging your chin out there, wasn’t it?” marvels Robert Kilander, Du Page County’s first assistant state’s attorney.

Byrne was furious. He ordered the state’s attorney to file a petition charging Sjostrom, Crawford, and the Tribune with contempt.

“We got the judge’s nose out of joint,” says Jim Squires, the editor of the Tribune. “Can a judge tell you you can’t publish what you’ve already published when the kid’s mother is granting interviews on television?

“It’s not our practice to identify all children involved in crimes. That’s not what we set out to do. It’s the intensity of public interest in the act that is driving the decision when it is initially made. So then once we do it and somebody says you can’t run the name you just ran, it’s very close to prior restraint, and I am just compelled to test that in court.

“We weren’t trying to get into any fracas with the judge. I’m sorry he felt personally angered. We weren’t trying to taunt him.”

Well, maybe not. But at a January hearing on the contempt charges, Judge Byrne said he felt “personally insulted.” Joseph Thornton, attorney for the defendants, tried to explain that the reporters hadn’t done anything. It was editors who’d made the decision to run the minor’s name–not that Thornton said who those editors were.

As for Sjostrom and Crawford . . . Thornton suggested dropping charges. We weren’t at the hearing but we can imagine how Thornton might have put it. “They’re not part of this. This is between you and me and the Constitution. Do the decent thing and lift this shadow from their lives.” The judge was not moved. As long as he has a couple of real necks by real scruffs, he’s got the Tribune’s attention.

Judge Byrne did do the decent thing and excuse himself from the case. If the contempt charges are ever actually tried, Judge William Black will preside. (Black’s first hearing on the matter was scheduled for this Friday, February 17.) Don’t look for press martyrs to emerge from this saga of rights in conflict, although one state’s attorney has spoken ominously of “fines and incarceration.” The Tribune’s real problem comes down here, as it often does, to attitude.

Waiting for Hedy

“There’s only one me, you know,” said Hedy Weiss. So there you are. A big city and one Sun-Times theater critic–well, no wonder some little storefront companies get left out. Besides, she doesn’t blow sweet nothings into just anyone’s ear. We respect her for deciding to save herself for Steppenwolf.

But Hedy Weiss made a small mistake when the new year began. She wrote a list for the Sun-Times of the things that trouble her about Chicago theater. And there, in position number eight:

“The lack of any significant attempt to attract Hispanic audiences in this city, and the failure of any segment of the Hispanic community to develop a thriving theater.”

This observation missed the mark by closer to an inch than a mile, but it really bugged the Latino Chicago Theater Company. The company, based in Wicker Park, hustles and scratches, veers in one direction and then another. Like many small companies, it does not thrive. But it exists.

And Hedy Weiss has never reviewed a single one of its plays.

The company was mad enough to buy a quarter-page ad in the Reader. WAKE UP HEDY!!! said the top of the ad in big black type. Below that, two rows of boxes identified the company’s seven ’88-’89 productions, an intriguing hodgepodge that includes a visit by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Brecht’s Jungle of Cities, Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes, and Carlos Fuentes’s El tuerto es rey performed in Spanish.

Below these boxes, for the public’s edification, the company reprinted point eight from Hedy Weiss’s year-in-review piece. And below that, there was a reference to the press releases they keep sending her:


M’ija? That’s short for mi hija, or “my daughter.” A little bit lippy? we wondered.

Yes, said company member Mark Fraire, who was keeping us abreast of developments. “It means ‘my little one.’ in this context, it’s making the person subordinate. It gives offense, but not as drastically as some of the other Latin words. But we wanted to show her we’re here.”

Originally, the ad was going to really zing her. It was supposed to say “Wake up Hedy, Pedijita!” That stumped us. “It doesn’t mean anything nice,” said Fraire. “There really isn’t any translation for it. It’s ‘little . . .’ and whatever nasty word you want to put in there. But we thought that would be way too harsh.”

Cooler heads were rapidly prevailing. The ad ran January 12, and it was clipped and mailed to Laura Emerick, editor of the Sun-Times’s Show section, attached to a mollifying cover letter. “We were sorry to read that despite calls and invitations to our plays, we have yet to be recognized by your staff. We hope that the ad does not create unpleasant animosities and that in the future you will attend our plays and participate in our enthusiastic growth.”

It doesn’t pay to offend a big institution that has the power to stop ignoring you.

A copy of the letter went to Hedy Weiss. There was no response.

Inside the company, nerves tightened. The board of directors, the artistic committee, the rank and file all debated the next move. Mary McAuliffe, who’ll be directing Roosters, the upcoming production, suggested calling Weiss and inviting her to lunch.

“No one was really keen on the idea,” said Fraire. “We weren’t sure what the response would be. The worst that could have come out of it is that she wouldn’t have had anything to do with it.”

The Latino Chicago Theater Company decided to sit tight. Maybe they’d gone too far already. The next move, if there was one, would have to be made by the Sun-Times.

Actually, it was made by us. We called Hedy Weiss and told her she almost had herself a free lunch.

“I should have been less emphatic about none,” she repented, meaning her categorical year-end dismissal of Hispanic theater. “But the thing is, there’s a huge Latino population out there, and there’s one minor company.

We wondered if the ad had touched her conscience. When Roosters opens in March, will she be there?

“There’s only one of me, you know,” said Hedy Weiss. “There’s nobody else, literally. I have no official backup. If I can, I will see it. I can’t see everything.”

She reflected, “I think they overreacted a bit. But that’s fine. They have a right to do that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy the Daily Journal–Wheaton.